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The Facebook face-off. By Lucie Benson

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One of the most hotly debated issues of the year so far has to be the question over whether staff should have access to social networking sites in the workplace. So what is the answer? Lucie Benson talks to HR Zone members to find out.


People up and down the country are divided as to whether social networking sites are actually a business benefit and a useful networking tool, or whether they hinder productivity and are a threat to IT security.

According to our recent poll conducted on HR Zone, asking whether employers should ban Facebook at work, it would seem all of you are divided too; 54 per cent of you said no, it shouldn’t be banned, whilst 46 per cent believed that it should.

There are some big firms that have already blocked access to social networking sites due to concerns over productivity and IT security, including LloydsTSB, Credit Suisse, Transport for London and Goldman Sachs. Many companies are concerned that employees may be writing material on Facebook, or publishing photographs or videos, which may cast the company in an embarrassing light.

Watch out, cyber-criminals are about

Graham Cluley, a senior technology consultant at IT security firm Sophos, warns that the security concerns are very real. “Businesses could be the victims of a targeted attack by cyber-criminals, who are using stolen employee information to their advantage,” he remarks. “Although sites like Facebook can be used for legitimate business purposes, it’s right that IT administrators should be given the power to decide whether access is appropriate for their company.

“It would seem sensible for companies to have a policy as to whether accessing Facebook is appropriate behaviour in the workplace – and if it is, whether there should be any restrictions on the time of day when workers can access the site, or how long for,” he adds.

HR consultant Sandra Beale believes that the workplace is for work and that social networking should only be allowed during lunch breaks or before/after work. A detailed IT policy should be drafted to cover all eventualities, she says. “Any abuse or reduced work performance due to non-adherence should be a disciplinary offence.”

Yet HR Zone member Ryan Deschamps believes that the IT department is the last place you should go for help. “My advice to HR departments is to get the message from your business units about Facebook abuse – not your IT department. IT departments are not skilled in the use of Facebook – they are skilled in turning IT services on and off.”

“Every employee owes a duty of mutual trust and confidence to the employer, which may be breached if material is posted which could bring the employer into dispute.”

Jessica Morris, solicitor, Thomas Eggar

Consultant Iain Young believes that the use of social networking sites should be banned at work. “This is something that should be left to out-of-hours work,” he says. “The other problem with blogs and such like is the liability they expose a company to if an employee makes untrue comments about another company, or uses the site to harass other employees.”

Jessica Morris, a solicitor at law firm Thomas Eggar, says that social networking sites such as Facebook, aside from being a distraction for employees, pose a serious threat to an employer’s business and its reputation.

“Employers’ main concerns are potential breaches of confidentiality, and adverse comments about the workplace and other employees which could constitute discrimination, bullying or harassment,” she remarks.

“An employer’s response to inappropriate comments and/or photos on Facebook should always depend on the circumstances, but every employee owes a duty of mutual trust and confidence to the employer, which may be breached if material is posted which could bring the employer into dispute.

“I recommend all employers implement an IT policy dealing with personal webpages, setting out clear disciplinary consequences of breach, which should be communicated to all employees,” she advises.

Looking at the other side of the coin, there are some organisations that are fully embracing all that social networking sites have to offer. IBM’s Facebook policy is a good example; within the firm, there are 22,000 people on Facebook every day.

“It’s a social cultural thing,” says Ian McNairn, web innovation and technology director at IBM software. “If you’re a company with something to hide, you’ll stay away from social networking. But IBM wants to embrace those tools, and then take them to the extreme to see how valuable they’ll be from a business perspective.”

Same problem, different name

The argument for and against the use of social networking sites could be considered nothing new. It wasn’t that long ago that people were wary of general internet access and email at work, and look how mainstream this is now.

HR Zone member Keith McDougall agrees: “Social networking is simply the activity that is getting the attention today. Last year it was blogging, in the 90s it was internet access and social email, and in the 80s it was using the company phone for personal calls. The problem is not new, only the terminology is new.”

Consultant Juliet LeFevre takes a similar view: “Last year it was smoking, in the run up to the law change, this year it’s social networking, next year cyber pets or some such. Is anyone actually running businesses or are they all too busy monitoring staff?”

One thing that both employers and employees must think about seriously is their internet reputation, or ‘NetRep’, as it is now known, when publishing personal material online that remains on the world wide web indefinitely.

“Last year it was smoking, in the run up to the law change, this year it’s social networking, next year cyber pets or some such. Is anyone actually running businesses or are they all too busy monitoring staff?”

Juliet LeFevre

Consultant Mike Morrison explains: “While these sites can reduce productivity and impact corporate brand, the biggest risk ironically is to the individuals themselves. Material published on Facebook, MySpace and so on is in the public domain and will impact their NetRep. In some instances it may undermine their professionalism, or give a potential employer a reason not to employ. As HR professionals we need to educate our staff rather than encourage their creativity in accessing these sites.”

Steve Bailey, managing director at BackgroundChecking.com, says that users of social networking sites must give more consideration to the fact that any messages posted on theses sites, that are written in jest, are in the public domain and could affect career prospects.

“What is said may seem clever today, but not in the years to come when a candidate loses an exciting career prospect because of it,” he warns. “Bear in mind that there is nowhere to hide from an embarrassing or detrimental internet history.”

Beale concurs with this opinion. “Comments made in cyberspace never go away and lots of information can be picked up on one individual if their name is tapped into Google and other search engines. Their opinions and activities can often come back to haunt them should companies wish to investigate their employees or potential employees further.”

Business networking

We must not forget the differences between ‘social’ and ‘business’ networking. As Morrison discussed in a recent HR Zone article on the topic, networking sites such as Linkedin or TrainerBase can help solve business problems, become an invaluable networking tool amongst professionals and even aid in recruitment.

Training manager Nik Kellingley says that the problem with social networking is that most employers don’t understand its value. “It can play an important role in building up contacts, particularly business-focused networks such as Linkedin. They can cut recruitment costs and build business relationships quickly, and, to a lesser extent, so can Facebook.”

At the end of the day, it all comes down to trust, between employer and employee, as well as clear policies communicated throughout the organisation, and a little bit of common sense.

“In business we believe we hire good people and we trust them,” comments McDougall. “We also want to continually build a trusting relationship. Banning or restricting social networking tells your employees you don’t trust them to make the right decisions and to do their job to a high standard. The solution is trusting relationships and a good performance management process.”


A TUC briefing for employers, on online social networking and HR, can be found by clicking here.

2 Responses

  1. Great, well-researched article

    I think the conclusion of your article says it all. Common sense is key.

    I will add that Facebook is only one player in the game — there are many products like it that can eat away at productivity time. Online businesses are innovative and new ways to capture the attention of your employees are being created every day.

    Public institutions in particular should be wary of banning social software, however. Information about the community is the currency of government, and alot can be gleaned about the community from a product like Facebook.

    This issue is of particular interest to librarians as well, since our mission is to provide users with access to information. Sometimes IT and HR departments turn things off without any consultation and make them considerably less productive as a result. Health, Legal and Education institutions are often guilty of this sin.

  2. Social Networking and Recruitment
    I read with interest the members’ comments in the article on Facebook and Facebook use in the workplace. What I found more interesting, which I believe needs to be addressed by HR professionals is the debate as to whether, screening firms and HR departments should use information on facebook as recruitment decision making tools. Obviously information posted by applicants on Facebook can potentially be very embarrassing to the individual. Much of this information may be fabricated by the individual to “show off” or maybe completely irrelevant to the job and possibly illegal as a recruitment selection tool.

    We have resisted the temptation to provide social networking information on our reports due to the private nature of the information and because it encroaches substantially into people’s lives outside work. Would it be relevant for example that an applicant likes to cross-dress on weekends, or, how about any information on sexual orientation, religious beliefs or medical information. Let’s take the example that an applicant discloses on Facebook that he has cancer or dyslexia or depression or is pregnant and the recruiter reads about it. The obvious problem is that the applicant may have made up the information for reasons of their own, and furthermore, what use is it to the recruiter other than to prejudice their decision?

    I would like to quote below from the TUC paper on the subject, where the subject is discussed:

    “Another area in which social networking has been seen to impact on work is the reported use of sites like Facebook to vet candidates for recruitment. This is no doubt a temptation for many managers seeking to appoint staff, but any employer who takes equal opportunities in recruitment seriously should not be considering this. As only a minority of potential staff will have public profiles on social networks, using information from this source can give an unfair advantage or disadvantage to certain candidates. There is also the danger it may leave the employer open to charges (well founded or not) of discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, sexuality or other criteria, if this information is not available on application forms but can be deduced from a search personal profiles online”.

    Kind Regards,
    Alexandra Kelly, Director
    Powerchex Limited

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